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Paper mill contract negotiations occur, but still no resolution

Striking UPM Blandin workers gather outside the paper mill Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Grand Rapids. Members of the Teamsters Local No. 346 voted to go on strike Friday after their demands for higher wages and better working conditions were not met by company management, according to the union.
Contributed
/
Tom Cobb
Striking UPM Blandin workers gather outside the paper mill Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Grand Rapids. Members of the Teamsters Local No. 346 voted to go on strike Friday after their demands for higher wages and better working conditions were not met by company management, according to the union.

A UPM Blandin spokesperson reported parties agreed to continue talks Thursday. Meanwhile, the strike continues and the mill remains shuttered.

GRAND RAPIDS — There is not yet a resolution Tuesday, July 18, between striking union paper mill workers and UPM Blandin management.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, a UPM North American spokesperson reported the parties met for contract talks that day and agreed to continue negotiations Thursday.

"We remain hopeful that we can move forward and reach an agreement," the statement read.

A total of 166 members of Teamsters Local No. 346 are on strike, accounting for 80% of the plant’s workforce. Groups of workers continue to picket in several locations in Grand Rapids near UPM Blandin.

Interview with Jeff Oveson, Teamsters Local No. 346 president
Oveson spoke to KAXE on Saturday, July 15, 2023 — the day employees went on strike.
Jeff Oveson is the president of Teamsters Local No. 346.

During a phone interview Saturday, Union President Jeff Oveson said workers are demanding better wages, elimination of a two-tier system of benefits for newer employees and changes to staffing levels. Spiking overtime hours are leading to what Oveson characterized as dangerous working conditions for overtired production workers.

According to Oveson, union members recently rejected an offer from the company and learned negotiations weren’t planned to continue until August.

“The members were very clear that if they’re not high enough on the employers’ priority list to bargain with, that providing labor was something they weren’t interested in,” Oveson said. “So until the employer is prepared to bargain a fair contract with us, we will be withholding our labor.”

UPM Blandin paper mill workers hold picket signs along the highway Saturday, July 15, 2023. Members of the Teamsters Local No. 346 are on strike amid stalled contract talks with management.
Contributed
/
Tom Cobb
UPM Blandin paper mill workers hold picket signs along the highway Saturday, July 15, 2023. Members of the Teamsters Local No. 346 are on strike amid stalled contract talks with management.
“We remain hopeful that we can move forward and reach an agreement."
UPM Blandin

Employees are also frustrated due to the recent history of reductions in the mill’s production, he said. Oveson said employees would remain on strike as long as it takes.

In its communications about the strike, the company has not addressed any specific claims made by union leadership.

According to UPM’s website, UPM Blandin employs 230 people and produces 230,000 metric tons of coated magazine and catalog paper each year. Oveson said 166 of those employees are union members.

Oveson said this is the first strike ever authorized by Teamsters union members at the mill, which has been a major employer and central feature of the city of Grand Rapids since 1901.

Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. In February 2023, she accepted a role as News Director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building a new local newsroom at the station.